James defines an asshole as follows. The asshole
(1.) allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically;Nuances of ordinary usage aside, it does seem to me that this captures an important type of person, and one deserving of the epithet.
(2.) does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and
(3.) is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people (p. 5).
Two of James's insights about the asshole particularly strike me. First, why is the asshole so infuriating, even when the harm he does is slight? James's answer is that the asshole's entrenched sense of entitlement -- the asshole's refusal to treat others as equals -- adds particular sting to the injuries he forces upon us. It's not just that he cuts in line or takes the last two cookies for himself. It's that, even when confronted, he refuses to recognize us as deserving equal consideration for line position and cookie consumption. A mere jerk (in James's terminology) might be moved upon reflection to confess the wrongness of his actions (even if still refusing to yield the second cookie) but all such appeals slide off the asshole. In fact, the more you protest, the more the asshole glazes over and rises, in his own mind, above you. (Here I go somewhat beyond James's own remarks, but I hope I remain within his general spirit.)
Second -- and equally infuriating -- the asshole, unlike the psychopath, is morally motivated. It's not just "morality be damned, I'm getting mine!" Rather, the asshole feels morally entitled to special advantages. An injustice is done, he feels, if he has to wait in the post office line equally with everyone else. After all, he's not a mere schmoe like you! Sanctimonious selfishness is the mark of the asshole.
However, I think James hits one wrong note repeatedly in the book, concerning the asshole's self-knowledge. For example, in the conclusion of his book -- his "Letter to an Asshole" -- he addresses the asshole with remarks like this: "we should ask about the nature of your own presumed special moral status" (p. 198) and "I address you here to give you... an argument that you really should come to recognize others as equals, that you should in this way change your basic way of being" (p. 190). This is off key, I think, because many assholes, perhaps most, would not explicitly acknowledge, even privately to themselves, that they deserve special moral consideration; they would not deny that "all men are created equal" -- in the morally relevant sense of "equal". Rather, I suggest, their spontaneous reactions and their moral judgments about particular cases reveal that they implicitly regard others as undeserving of full moral consideration; but when pushed to verbalize, and when reflecting in their usual self-congratulatory mode, they will deny that this is in fact their view.
Why shouldn't the asshole wait his turn in the post office line, then, in his own mind? Well, it's not that others aren't his equals -- not really -- it's just that he is particularly busy, since he owns his own business, or that he's a particularly important person around town, since he's a distinguished professor at the local university, or... whatever. Anyone else in the same position would (the asshole insists) deserve exactly the same special treatment! It's not that he's inherently superior, he says, but rather that he has achieved something that others have not, and this is entitles him to special privileges. Or: I've got especially important stuff going on today! Alternatively, if achievement and importance-based rationalizations aren't handy, the asshole has the following ready fallback: Cutting in line if you can get away with it is just how this game is supposed to work. Others could easily do so too, if they were more on the ball, if they weren't such cow-like fools. (But not in front of me! Part of the game is also enforcing your line position against intruders; too bad for them that those other people didn't.)
Conveniently for him, there always seems to be a rationalization lying around somewhere. All men are created equal, of course, of course! But not all achieve the same and not everyone can take first place.
Update, Nov. 8: Aaron James has launched a blog on assholes.